The art of sharing power and responsibility to create community
Downtown Santa Cruz, a high school student takes clothes from a store without paying and is caught in the act. Instead of going to jail, she agrees to meet with a store manager to discuss the act and mutually agree on what to do next.
An elementary school garden is destroyed by teenagers. During a restorative dialogue, the teenagers sob with sadness, realizing the affect they’ve had on the younger kids who put so much energy into growing their garden.
A math teacher’s car is broken into by a young man. They agree to discuss the event in a restorative meeting. The two come to understand each other’s perspective, forgiveness arises and the teacher ends up offering to help tutor the youth in math.
During a downtown May Day celebration, windows of 18 businesses are smashed. A sharing circle offers people the chance to discuss how they were affected by the property destruction, and to discover possible ways of building community.
These are examples of a growing trend in responding to harmful actions and building trust between individuals and communities called Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice (RJ) is a philosophy that incorporates a diversity of tools to restore safety and connection through voluntary dialogue and mutual agreement. Often these meetings lead to transformational changes in people’s lives.
From Punishment to Compassion
“Simply put, to be “restorative” means to believe that decisions are best made and conflicts are best resolved by those most directly involved in them.” —The Restorative Practices Handbook by Costello, Wachtel & Wachtel (International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2009)
The criminal justice system is built on the theory that the best way to encourage people to change their behavior is through punishment. Restorative Justice offers an alternative that is alive and growing in Santa Cruz homes, schools, organizations, spiritual centers, and the legal system. Integral to RJ is returning the process of reconciliation to those directly involved in a harmful act instead of handing it over to others (police, judges and lawyers) not involved in the original incident.
In the Brazilian favela shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, Dominic Barter has helped to develop Restorative Circles (RC) for the past 15 years. In a city where murders take 5,000 lives a year, challenges have been formidable to find practical and productive ways to restore safety and trust. Barter has also brought the restorative philosophy into 120 Brazilian high schools and into courts. There are now urban areas where police have the option of offering Restorative Circles to people who have committed minor crimes instead of going to the police station; and some districts have seen a 50 percent reduction in referrals to juvenile courts. The UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts recently chose to highlight Barter’s Restorative Circles in their “Radical Efficiency” report for “delivering much better public outcomes for much lower cost.”
Barter views conflict as something to engage with and fully express rather than “resolve.” He explains the difference: “Implicit in the idea of conflict resolution is that conflict is a problem. I view conflict as a message and really the choice is to either receive the message or ignore it. If we label conflict or violence as bad, then politically that is so handy because what we do is condemn the frustrated expressions of anger and powerlessness by those who are most marginalized.”
Barter adds, “What we deal with in Restorative Circles is not conflict but painful conflict. If we ignore painful conflict then it becomes violence, raising its volume ‘generously’ so that we notice something that we haven’t paid attention to before.”
Restorative Circles are always voluntary and are a place for truth to be explored, from each person’s perspective. Barter says, “I want the circle to be a place where we can focus on: What is it that we’re capable of doing to each other? And is this really what we want to do? If we discovered our power by doing something which has stimulated pain in someone else then we can find out: Is that how we want to use our power? Do we want to use it any other way?”
Santa Cruz Circles
“Restorative Justice is a compass, not a map” —The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2002)
Christine King, a trainer with Santa Cruz Nonviolent Communication and UCSC Transformative Action lecturer, recalls discovering RJ and Restorative Circles through Dominic Barter, “He was so articulate about this process. When he came to the Bay Area to present this process, I had to be there.” King often uses Restorative Circles (RC) in her work with schools, organizations and other groups.
After windows were smashed at 18 downtown businesses on May 1, former Santa Cruz mayor Jane Weed-Pomerantz contacted King and discussed the possibility of organizing community meetings. Weed-Pomerantz comments, “A sense of belonging and significance are critical for each of us and with these values established there is a natural desire to give back, to contribute in meaningful ways. Restorative Justice does this.” King and local activists planned a series of three restorative meetings to discuss the property destruction and recent violence in the city. The meetings were called Downtown Community Dialogues, and 30 different residents participated in each gathering. “Everyone had an opportunity to be listened to, which is so healing,” recalls King with a grateful smile.
King and co-facilitator Todd Philips have also brought the RC concept into Santa Cruz Waldorf School, where Esther Centers and her husband Scott Olmsted are teachers. “I heard about Christine’s Restorative Practices workshop,” recalls Centers. “I went to it and was so excited that I decided to come back to the faculty with a proposal that all the teachers in the school get trained in how to have a circle.” Olmsted adds, “It’s about the art of listening, which is the key to social success.”
“This coming school year we’ll have Christine and Todd take part in a weekly lesson,” says Centers. “The sixth, seventh and eighth graders will be empowered to be what we call “circle keepers.” We don’t call it “facilitator” because the facilitator in the old model of the justice system holds structural power over the participants. In the restorative work everyone holds equal share in the outcome of a circle.”
Shared & Equal Power
“To lead and not to rule: This is the mysterious power.” —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin (Shambhala, 1997)
Dominic Barter sounds clear and focused in his view of Restorative Circles. “The meaning of the word circle for me is not how you arrange the chairs but how we share both responsibility and power,” says Barter. “Every time you put an authority figure in that kind of environment – not in the sense of someone whose experience I recognize and value, but in the sense of someone who has structural power over me — it’s no longer a circle and it’s no longer possible for us to dialogue. I think of dialogue as being a conversation between equals whose ending is unknown.”
One of the principles of RC points to something akin to radical democracy; people take responsibility for their lives and recognize their interdependence. “We take the crime or act out of the community and suddenly it belongs to the judicial system,” says King succinctly. “Then it’s between the state and the offender and we’ve removed everyone who’s been affected by it.”
Mending the Social Fabric
“Circles hold at their center the importance of recognizing the impact of our behavior on others and acknowledging the interconnectedness of our fates.” —The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis (Good Books, 2005)
Vicki Assegued is coordinator of the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program (VODP) and Parent-Teen Mediation Program for Santa Cruz County, and works out of the Conflict Resolution Center. “Restorative Justice provides an opportunity after a crime has occurred to bring the victim, offender and community members together to discuss what led up to the incident, what happened during the incident, how everyone has been affected, and to explore ways that the harm can be repaired.”
Assegued works in conjunction with Fernando Giraldo, director of the Juvenile Division of the Santa Cruz Probation Department. Giraldo remembers when RJ began to enter into the local formal justice system: “About a decade ago there was a bit of a paradigm shift, with a more balanced approach.”
Assegued explains a common chain of events: “After a teenager commits a crime such as shoplifting, the police write up a report and they send it to probation. If appropriate, the case is diverted to VODP. When the parents of the offender, the offender and the victim all agree, we come together for a dialogue which is often profoundly constructive and healing for all parties. Afterwards, offenders go on to fulfill their agreements and successfully close their cases by repairing the harm to the victim, the community, themselves and their families.”
At the downtown Urban Outfitters store this process has been used with success. One of the managers there, Laurie (not her real name), has participated in numerous dialogues with teens who have taken products without paying; “It’s an opportunity to explain to the juvenile and their family how these things affect us personally and how it’s not really affecting the corporation.” It’s also an opportunity to understand underlying motivations: “I can hear what’s going in the person’s mind in terms of rebellion or whatever it may be,” says Laurie.
Neighborhood Accountability Boards (NAB’s) are another form of Restorative Justice. According to Fernando Giraldo, “There have been NAB’s in Santa Cruz County for about ten years.” Yolanda Perez-Logan, the assistant director for the Juvenile Probation Department and Community Resource Developer for NAB’s from 2000 to 2004, estimates that she participated in 60 to 70 NAB meetings of “victims” and “offenders,” sometimes in RJ referred to as “receiver” and “author.” A Spanish language NAB has been in place for nine years.
Perez-Logan recounts an experience at a NAB: “A young man in Santa Cruz attempted to steal from a car and was caught by a math teacher. We met and they listened to each other, and the teacher heard that the crime was a moment of poor judgment. The math teacher ended up offering to tutor the young man in math.”
Vicki Assegued remembers another story: “Three teenagers broke into and destroyed a garden at an elementary school. We held a restorative dialogue in the school library with the three teen offenders and their parents, the school principal, a PTA parent, three fifth grade students, a VODP volunteer and me. The fifth graders spoke about the devastation they felt when they arrived at school and saw their garden destroyed. They couldn’t understand why anybody would want to do that. As these young children described the impact on them personally, and on the entire school, the three teenagers burst into tears, now fully understanding and regretting the ramifications of their actions. They recognized that this crime they had committed out of boredom, thinking it would be fun, caused so much harm to others, and they were prepared to accept responsibility and repair the harm. The young children, seeing the remorse in the teens, felt very relieved and freely offered their forgiveness.”
Assegued sums up the spontaneous understanding and empowerment that commonly occurs during these processes: “RJ dialogue is often a transformational experience which allows victims, offenders and their communities to add a whole new chapter to the story and create a more positive outcome.”
Roots of Circles
“The Indian communities view a wrongdoing as a misbehavior which requires teaching or an illness which requires healing.” —Returning To The Teachings by Rupert Ross (Penguin, 2006)
Restorative Justice has one of its roots in the community-healing practices of Native Americans, the First Nations of Canada and the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. In the ’70s and ’80s the practices began finding their way into spiritual and activist communities. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an experiment in using principles of RJ to heal after the initial fall of apartheid there. And Gandhi’s earlier nonviolence movement was based on Swaraj, or self-rule, with an emphasis on constructing parallel social structures that were self-designed and rooted in truth and understanding.
Dominic Barter appreciates the potential for RJ: “I like what I’ve seen happening in intentional communities where people have the chance to not just use Restorative Circles as a parallel system but can play with replacing a punitive system with a restorative system and have that as their exclusive way of responding to conflicts.”
Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El reminds us of the roots of RJ: “The idea of Restorative Justice comes from the word Shalom, which most people translate as peace, and really means wholeness. It’s not about appeasing a victim. The person who’s responsible for the mis-act also comes to a place of understanding and wholeness.”
Rabbi Marcus, Mary Orr and Leslie Tremaine, of Vipassana Santa Cruz, and Christine King recently began discussing the use of Restorative Circles to connect the spiritual communities of Santa Cruz. King and others are leading a Restorative Circles workshop in September at The Center for Compassion. In fact King would like to see Santa Cruz become a “Restorative City,” as have Hull, England and Rochester, New York. King says with a glimmer of hope, “RJ has the potential to bring peace in the world. It can bridge the divide between differing ideas, opinions and philosophies and bring more harmony and understanding.” She smiles and leans forward, “And Santa Cruz is beginning to get it. Hurt people hurt and healed people heal.”
John Malkin is a local writer, musician and host of “The Great Leap Forward” every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM and freakradio.org. He is author of “Sounds of Freedom” and “The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America.”